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Series V

Much ado about PR (Pt. 3)

Today’s edition of Series V is the third of a multi-part series on press and public relations for startups in Africa. You can catch up on the past two editions here and here. This week, we’ve called in the calvary. JessicaHope, Founder & Managing director of Wimbart, a boutique public relations company with a heavy emphasis on emerging markets, shares how early-stage companies can win at PR.

Jessica has worked with companies like Iroko, Andela, Piggybank.ng, Itanna, Farmcrowdy, and other well-known companies and brands.

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Jessica Hope. Photocredit: @rotimishotit

On getting your feet off the ground.

For a lot of startups, getting on the press ladder is difficult. So what they should do first is start engaging with the local press. Start reaching out to Techpoint, TechCabal and other local publications. Don’t be fixated on Techcrunch or CNN. Working with local media (including journalists from newspapers) will help startups get an idea of the kinds of questions journalists ask and how to engage them.

If your local tech community isn’t writing about you, then I’d be surprised if international tech writers do. Being in local press opens the door to international news because they can get a picture of what you are doing from a google search. Start from your local community, and begin building those relationships. Retweet their articles, pitch to them, go to their events [it’s critical to have an elevator pitch ready]. Try and meet them face-to-face and that makes it easier to start engaging with the international press.

On profiling and picking the right reporters.

I say to startups, especially in their early days, that they should consume the media they want to be in and attend events where they think the journalists are going to be. The idea is to start developing a personal relationship with them. You don’t always have to pitch a story. Sometimes you might want to tell a journalist about what you’re doing, so when you eventually have a story, they can make that connection. But I think it is essential to be targeted in your approach when sending out press releases.

So, if you’re a fintech company, you need to find journalists who write about fintech, tech, or finance. I wouldn’t even try and pitch a fintech story to the entertainment editor at the Guardian. It’s about doing your research. These days, It is easy to build a picture of journalists and reporters because of Twitter, so you can find out what their primary area of interest is and then figure out how to engage them. So, you might do things like start liking or retweeting their tweets or engaging them in meaningful debate. It’s important to get on people’s radar in a right way.

Major key: when emailing journalists, try and use personal names, so they know it’s not just a mail blast.

On Founder-led PR

The first step is keeping track of the growth story through a blog, or Medium page. It comes in handy when you do get big. Also, writing helps you collect your thoughts. If you don’t use a PR agency, that’s absolutely fine. A lot of companies in the early stages can’t do that, but it is at that stage you at least go to some events or find someone within your company who is a good advocate for your company who can speak authoritatively about what you do. You should look at how other press releases are structured, so if you’re writing your own press release, you could use templates of other reputable press releases. Next, you need to make sure that you target the press releases to the key outlets and engage on a local level.

More importantly, you need to figure out why you need PR. Ask yourself “what do we need? What’s our business case right now?” if your business case is you need more for consumers, the next set of questions are: how are we going to get more consumers? What do we think our consumers are reading? How do we think they are going to be influenced? You have to understand your market and be smart about how you target them.

Storytelling for founders.

It is basically being able to paint a picture of the problem you’re tackling and how you’re addressing it. It doesn’t have to be complicated at all. Or a story of scale and growth, providing data is useful as well. If for example, you’ve partnered with a huge bank, that’s interesting and adds weight to your story. If you’ve secured investment from a famous investor or VC, that is of interest as well. So there’s a lot of different aspects that make up a good story and also providing numbers help. A lot of startups say “we are the number one this or we are the leading that” but they can’t provide evidence to back up that claim. And a journalist isn’t going to believe you just because you say it.

On how to decide on and craft interesting news.

An excellent deciding factor will be if you are recording some fantastic results, that will be one of the first things or if you’re doing something entirely different. For example, the most recent campaign we worked on was PiggybankNG (a VP portfolio company), we did their fundraise announcement. They have a fascinating story. The company essentially started from a twitter conversation because people wanted a savings platform and then fast-forward to a year and a half after, they have 53,000+ users on their platform. Having that traction is evidence that the platform works. Then on top of that, they raised 1.1 million dollars which again adds another layer of interest to the story. And importantly, they also actually started engaging with local media by themselves before they engaged with Wimbart. By engaging with local media, they were able to open the doors and start having conversations with investors.

Finally…

Keep reading local and international outlets and figure out what are common things that make up an exciting story and try to work out how you and your company with limited resources and budget can try and achieve that.


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Series V

Much ado about PR (Pt. 2)

Last week, we introduced a framework that shows how journalists decide what to cover. This week, we cover ‘when’ the press is relevant and how to approach it.

Press is most relevant when you know exactly why you need it. e.g. why people should care about your product launch, the problem you’re solving, or a funding round. In each of these cases, you must have a strategic reason for engaging with the public, and as with everything else, you should start with ‘why’. Define your goals. Your ‘why’ could range from recruiting the best talent to securing a research grant to acquiring customers. All that matters is that you are deliberate about it.

On the other hand, Press is inconsequential when your product isn’t viable. Imagine you just launched and your press release is on a widely read and respected publication. But when new visitors flood your website, it buckles under the pressure. What, then, have you gained? Customers that churn before conversion?

More than a transaction

PR is not a series of transactions with journalists; it is a long-term consideration that helps you tell your story over time. But you must have a compelling story first. While PR might be exciting, the founder’s number one job is to focus on the product. You could have a puff-piece written about you, but if you get people interested and the product doesn’t live up to its promises, they will leave and won’t come back.

Without a solid product engine, PR is like putting lipstick on a pig: looks interesting from a distance, but won’t ever get invited to dinner (well, unless IT IS dinner).

“Treat PR like biz dev”

Cultivate a relationship with the press long before you want coverage. You have to build media friendships way before you need them.

For early-stage companies, founder-led PR is preferred primarily because your startup’s story/narrative is too important to leave to someone else; you know your domain and your business, therefore, you have something the media wants — the real inside scoop. Entrepreneurs should think, from day one, about how they can communicate directly with a variety of audiences: their customers, members of a Facebook group, Twitter followers, journalists, business partners and more. One positive side-effect of this is that it helps founders define their business in a clear and concise way (this will come in handy when you’re talking to investors or potential partners). As they say, one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else.

Thanks to the times we live in, different forms of PR abound. “PR” doesn’t always mean being featured in a big Tech publication. These days it could also mean putting out an excellent article about who you are; speaking engagements; podcasts; social media, and other channels you operate yourself.

Are we saying journalists are unimportant? We’ll answer that next week with picking the right reporters and getting them interested in your story.


Links from the Internets

  • Net present value is a science. Identifying the trust and passion of a CEO is an art. There are very important things you can’t measure. [Link]
  • It’s never too early to charge. [Link]
  • The today and tomorrow of Machine Learning. [Link]
  • Leading the people. [Link]
  • Money. [Link]

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Series V

Much ado about PR (Pt. 1)

There is an established pattern for African startups that break out of the valley of death:

Start company > Establish demand > Raise $1m+ (usually with some validation from international accelerators) > Announce to the world via TechCrunch or Forbes that you exist and that the work you are doing matters.

This has created two extreme positions; the people who see press coverage as the ultimate validation (forget the customers), and the people who hide from it, in fear that engaging with the public means you’re really not doing the work. As with most things, the truth is somewhere in between.

In the coming weeks, we will ask and answer many questions about PR: how to think about it, when (not) to think about it, how to pick the right reporters, how to get them interested in your story, etc.

But first, we think it’s important to introduce a framework that shows how journalists decide what to cover. It’s a simple formula:

Interestingness = Who? x What? x So, what?

“Who?” here is obviously you, the startup founder. “What?” is whatever you are building. “So, what?” is the broader context or any additional information that makes it important. For any startup, the value of each variable will be different. But all that matters is the total score once all factors are multiplied. For example:

1. Logistics or on-demand delivery startups in Nigeria [What?] may not be interesting on their own to a reporter. The space is crowded, and there is little differentiation between each player. But if Jason Njoku, founder of Iroko [Who?] left his company to start one today, that would automatically make it noteworthy.

2. Kangpe/RelianceHMO, a VP portfolio company, offers a brilliant solution to a problem felt by the 97% of Nigerians [link] who don’t have access to health insurance [What?; So, what?]. That guarantees coverage for anybody credible who offers cheap cover to consumers.

3. A business reporter may just not find cryptocurrencies interesting [What?], and the founder of an African crypto-exchange [Who?] may not have enough clout to guarantee coverage …until they show them this graph [So, what?]:


Understanding this process allows founders and even investors to position their companies in the best-possible light, and increase the chances that a respected reporter will tell their story. But what is this story, and how does one come up with it?

Next week, we will take a step back and talk about when press/PR is valuable, when it’s not, and how to approach it. Watch this space and share this newsletter, if you found this useful. ^_^


Links from the Internets

  • Nigeria’s telco/ISP industry in charts and tweets. [Link]
  • Conservation of Invent: The hidden reason why A/B tests aren’t as effective as they look [Link]
  • Asch’s Conformity Experiment — CEOs and Investors might want to pay attention to this one [Link]
  • A History of Currency in Kenya, as told by the Central Bank [Link]

Thanks for reading. Did you like this post? Have Series V delivered to your inbox every Thursday. Subscribe here.